TONY KLIMAS | FEATURED ARTIST | APRIL 2017

Hi, Tony. Would you share a little background about yourself: who are you? where are you from? How long has film been in your life how did you get into it?

I am a first generation American, born and raised outside of Cleveland, OH.  My parents are Hungarian (Mom's side) and Lithuanian (Dad's side) and both families were displaced during World War II and after a fair amount of time and some interesting stories best told over a beer, they wound up in Cleveland during the 1950’s where eventually my Mom and Dad met through some mutual friends eventually leading to, well... me.  My parents are both still alive and living in Florida and we spend as much time as we can visiting with them whenever we can.  

As a kid, growing up in the 70’s, my Dad was always taking photos using a Voigtlander Vito B.  I later learned this was actually my Mom's camera, received from her brother, whom I am named after - my Uncle Tony.  He gave her the camera to pay off a debt.   I remember my first camera was a Kodak Instamatic that took 126 cartridges and later my Dad let me use the Voigtlander, which I enjoyed so much that for my 12th Birthday in 1977, I received a Pentax K1000 complete with the 50mm f2 kit lens.  I think he wanted the Voigtlander back. I still have and occasionally use both the Voigtlander and the Pentax and both still work perfectly.  I had a friend with a darkroom and developed film a few times, but eventually I kind of moved away from photography in my teenage years.  It was a fairly expensive hobby and I was also really into music and playing the drums, so every cent I earned from working went to pay for the drum kit I was slowly piecing together. I still took pictures now and then, but at that point in life, I was probably more focused on other things.  

After High School, I somehow managed to make it into the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. I received my appointment so late that I am pretty sure someone else changed their mind and freed up a slot for me. I was commissioned an Ensign in 1987 and served on active duty until 1992. After leaving the Navy, I went to Business School where I studied Finance and then I worked first in the Auto Industry in a few Finance and Accounting jobs before moving to Management Consulting in the late 90s. I've been doing that ever since, coming to NYC from Florida in 2009 to take a leadership role in my current firm.  

Interestingly, it was digital cameras that got me headed back toward film.  In the early 2000s, when the Canon Digital Rebel came out, I picked one up and started taking photos again.  I got really into it and eventually graduated to pro series Canon bodies and was lucky enough to pick up paid freelance work from a local paper where I was living at the time in Florida, mostly on the weekends.  I covered a lot of professional sports, events and also both the 2004 and 2008 Presidential campaigns, all while continuing my consulting career. In 2009, when I came to NYC, I needed to shut down the side business I had established for my freelance work and photography became a pure hobby once again.  

I had dabbled in film a few times while doing freelance work, but not too seriously.  In fact, I started a roll of Tri-X around 2005 in my Pentax and actually didn't finish it until about 10 years later when I started to really get into film.  I was also motivated by finding an old negative from the early 1900s after my Dad's sister passed away.  I believe it was a copy of a glass plate negative and we think it was from around 1910 to 1915 or so.  It was of my Grandfather when he was attending University around 1914 as a graduate student.  I scanned it and for the first time, we all got to see what he looked like in his early 20s.  I was blown away by that negative and it made me realize, that with film, maybe someone will look at images I make today a hundred plus years from now.    I finished the roll of Tri-X, developed it myself and I was hooked.  

Grandpa Adolfus circa 1913

Grandpa Adolfus circa 1913

I still shoot some digital now and then when I travel, but I am probably 90% film at this point and recently started into Large Format.  I have some projects I want to do, but I'm still pretty busy professionally, so some of that will have to wait. I am fortunate that I will probably be able to retire in the next 6 to 8 years (one more son to get through college)  and I  will still be young enough to pursue some of things I want to do photographically.  I even joke about going back and getting a Masters in Fine Art, but maybe I will just focus on some of the projects I want to do which are tied to other things I care about.  We'll see - I'm not rushing anything. 

10 years to finish a roll!! So much of me complaining about backlog... hehe. What was it about this one roll that hooked you in? Was it about the images? the process? How did you go from 135 film to large format?

So yes - about 10 years to finish one roll.  I loaded it and started it, but wasn't sure how I would develop it at the time and got distracted by other things and just never finished it.  That camera, with the roll inside, got moved a few times and was even in storage and then in early 2015, after I found the old negatives of my Grandfather, I decided to finish the roll and figure out how to develop it myself.  I just shot a few photos of my dog (who poses on command now) and it was ready for the soup. In the photos you'll see a few of the scans of my Grandfather both as a young man who at the time was away from his home in Lithuania and studying in Russia and then later, after he came to the US, probably in the late 50s or early 60s.   When I developed the 10 year old roll, it had a picture of my then 16 year old son at about the age of 5 or 6.  That was pretty cool too.  So in addition to learning that Tri-x will last for a decade inside a camera regardless of how it is stored, and develop quite nicely in D76, I also really gained some appreciation for the permanence of film.  

John - 10 years old TriX

John - 10 years old TriX

Charlie - 10 years old TriX

Charlie - 10 years old TriX

Having made that leap back into film, I think it was only a natural progression to move up the "food chain" negative wise.  I started into medium format with a TLR, which is always a fun way to do that and have also played around a lot with pinhole and now the lengthy process and precision of 4x5.  Even though I am old enough to remember all this stuff, I never really used any of it the first time around.  In fact from an experience perspective, all the paid work I did in the early 2000s was digital, so in some ways my rediscovery of film is no different than that of a young person who is trying it out for the first time, except with the difference of maybe having the ability to have some additional disposable income to spend on different types of cameras and different types of film.

Did that progression in negative size bring a change in the way you do photography? Obviously, there's a change in the mechanics of handling a roll versus a sheet of film. But, how about the subjects and themes in your photography?

I think in many ways, my move to film changed some things and then beyond that, as I have moved towards larger formats that continued my journey.  When I was doing freelance and shooting digital, I covered events and did a lot of sports at both the professional and collegiate levels.  For all of these things, the images have to be ready quickly and in some case, volume actually counts.  For event photography or youth sports, you want images of as many people as possible.  You also want those images as soon as possible since people tend to buy in the excitement of the moment. I actually did some work for a friend who printed on site at sporting events and sold to parents at the event.  He did quite well.  For the more news type stuff and sports, this is still one area where digital has the upper hand.  Knowing what I know now, I am amazed at how any pro sports photographer in the days of film managed to get anything.   Obviously, as I moved to film and shooting for myself, the things that I shot changed and how I shot them changed too.  

The photojournalist in me started shooting in the streets.  I didn't have deadlines anymore, but I wanted to tell some stories about strangers and the world around me.  I guess time will tell if I have managed to capture anything meaningful, but in some ways, that's not important.  It's meaningful to me and that's what matters.  I also tend to do more landscape and architectural stuff.  I think my quest to do better there is what led me to larger formats.  The planning, the process and all the work that goes into making one 4x5 negative is really important and I think it ultimately leads to a better image.  It's not so much the resolution as it is the process and the precious nature of the medium.  If I had a $50 roll of 35mm film and a camera that could only shoot one frame at a time, it would probably be the same experience as using a 4x5 field camera and some expensive sheet film.    

I feel like I am always practicing and learning.  Always a student.  I did some portraiture and even some weddings with digital, but I haven't done anything there yet with film, so that's on my list.  I'd like to try fashion at some point and while I've used studio lighting in the past, it's still an area where I have a lot to learn.  I'd also like to explore alternative processes.  I think at some point soon, I'm going to try some tin types.  This is one reason I like hanging around with others who share my passion, because they inspire me.   Without our Film Shooters Collective, I probably wouldn't be processing C41 or reversal, or trying redscale or playing with Instax or large format.  It's why being part of a community of other artists, regardless of who you are or where you are from, is so important.  Finally, I am saving macro photography for very old age when I can't get out anymore.  At that point, I just want a hospital bed with a flat surface nearby and some sort of macro setup.  I am going to  photograph anything I can get my hands on from a few inches away and I will still be happy.  My wife will be there too...crocheting blankets for the great grand kids.

For now, though, I'm still working on the things I like to do now.  Street, architecture landscape and pretty much anything that shows the world around me would probably be my main focus.  One of these days, I'm going to go hang out in a big box store and take portraits on a Saturday morning of people and their stuff and I also have a project I want to do involving the various professional people I work with in business and the art that they pursue.  You would actually be surprised how many people in the business world  pursue things like sculpture, painting, dance and photography.  It really kind of blows me away sometime and it give me hope too. I am going to do some things to document that, but probably not till I slow down a bit since my day job is still pretty all consuming.   

You say that, for now, you want to focus on story telling. Is there a particular theme you look for? Is there a particular style you're after?

I don't really know if I would say that I'm focused on story telling.  I think it's more about observing the world around me, capturing what I see and then letting people tell their own stories if they choose to do so.  The whole story telling thing is kind of a fad right now.  It even pops up in the business world when it comes to marketing and in leadership training.    I get the importance of the concept, but I think when I practice my visual art, it's not really fair to whomever views my photos if I try to tell the story for them.   I'd rather they do that part on their own.  I think it's more interesting that way.   I know from my experience as a part time photojournalist and freelancer that this is an easy trap to fall into when you are covering a news story, and in that regard, I think it's actually a dangerous trend and one reason people from every walk of life seem to trust the media less these days.

As for style, that's always a challenge.  I know I'm supposed to have one, but I think it's a struggle, at least for me to figure out what that really is and what I want it to be. The analytical side of me can translate into a style that I really don't like.  Very precise and clinical.  I call it pefect...ly boring.  It took me awhile to come to grips with that and it's very easy to do that with digital.  I think my attempt to break away from that is one reason I find myself experimenting or trying new things.  For example, I've used a toy camera a few times and I want do more of that.  The simplicity and imperfection of toy camera it perfection in a different way.  Same with pinholes.   Playing around with copy film, redscale or a 70 year old roll of film are also ways to push myself and start to establish a style of my own and I've done that all recently too.   I still feel like I have a lot of work to do in regard to my own style, but I've noticed pushing outside of my comfort zone seems to be helping with that goal.  I've had a few people tell me they see my photos and they know they are mine before knowing that they are mine, but I sometimes just think they're being kind.  I don't know if I will ever get to a place where I have achieved my own style and am happy, but it's a good goal and certainly a lot of fun on the journey.  

As for a theme, for me there is only one theme and that's capturing something ordinary yet beautiful in some way.  I think as we get older, we realize how brutal and horrible the world we live in can be but we also get better at seeing those little moments of beauty that keep us going.    I am so different as a person in my early 50s than who I was in my 20s and it's because I've learned to pay attention to those little moments and they mean so much more to me now than they did when I was young. That's what I want to capture and share with the hope that maybe someone will else will see it too.  Those moments of beauty are everywhere around us, you just have to slow down for a minute and take a look.  If I'm lucky, I have a camera and some film with me when I see them.

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You can see more or Tony's work at his website, his flicker page and his member profile.